“Assassination of a King: Details of the Latest Annamite Intrigues” from Le Matin, 4 August 1883

The Cần Chánh Palace

Kien-Phuc, nephew of Tu-Duc – The assassination of his predecessor – A palace revolution – Causes of our Expedition – The role of M. de Champeaux – The poisoning of Hiep-Hoa

We know by dispatch of the death of the king of Annam, Kien-Phuc, who was aged just seventeen. Who was this sovereign? How had he ascended the throne? In the hands of which party, which mandarins, did he meet his fate? Specific information allows us to give precise details on these various important points.

The Succession of Tu-Duc

Kien-Phuc was the nephew of King Tu-Duc and his fourth adopted son. It is known that Tu-Duc had no children; he had successively adopted four of his nephews: 1. Duc-Duc; 2. Hiep-Hoa; 3. Me-Trui; and 4. Me-Men. The latter, according to Annamite law, had regularly been called to serve the old sovereign, and at length succeeded him under the name of Kien-Phuc.

Tôn Thất Thuyết (1839-1913)

But before he ascended the throne, events occurred which are interesting to relate, and which perhaps throw significant light on his premature death.

Intrigues of the Court

On the death of Tu-Duc, several parties disputed the royal inheritance, in spite of the rules of the Annamite monarchy. That of the first adopted son was at first the strongest, and Duc-Duc was proclaimed sovereign. But his reign was ephemeral; an intrigue by the Minister of War, Ton-That-Thuyet, deposed him within two months. The powerful controller of the royal palace then raised to the throne his creature, Hiep-Hoa, the second adopted son of Tu-Duc.

Ton-That-Thuyet was a relentless but not very intelligent opponent of French influence. His hostility was so open that M. Harmand, then our Commissaire-général in Tonkin, obtained from the French government authorisation to direct an expedition against Hue. The forts at Thuan-An were bombarded and occupied. M. Harmand then imposed on Hiep-Hoa and his ministers a treaty, the clauses of which were unfortunately insufficient, but which stipulated that a garrison of 600 men should occupy the forts on the river some fifteen miles from the capital, and that a guard of 200 men would be attached to our Legation in Hue itself.

The Overthrow of Hiep-Hoa

Unhappy with this adventure, the king resolved to be rid of his protector, Ton-That-Thuyet. But this was a wrong move, since the dismissed minister immediately forged an alliance with the mandarin Nguyen-Van-Tuong, one of our principal opponents who had been well known to us since our first expedition to Tonkin, where he had given much trouble to M. Philastre, the successor to Francis Garnier.

Minister Nguyen-Van-Tuong

Nguyễn Văn Tường (1824–1886)

This person, a former intimate and favourite advisor to Tu-Duc, had married his daughter to a brother of Prince Memen, the last of the four adoptive sons of the former sovereign. He was Minister of Finance, and through his perpetual intrigues had contributed in no small way to provoking our second expedition to Tonkin. Also, he knew very well that, in case our influence should triumph at Hue, all power was at stake for him. This circumstance united the two ministers, who had hitherto been rivals. Ton-That-Tuyet consented to favour the candidature of Prince Memen, dear to Nguyen-Van-Tuong. The two ministers said that it was a matter of life or death for them to have in their devotion a sovereign of their choice, under whose protection they would reign. Prince Memen was their creation; He was only sixteen. But how would they substitute him for Hiep-Hoa in the presence of his protector, the Resident of France?

The Conspiracy of the Two Ministers

Our resident, M. de Champeaux, an old “Cochinchinois” who was well informed about all these intrigues, informed the authorities in Tonkin and asked them for instructions. But they were seemingly so completely absorbed by the events at Song-Koï that they failed to reply to M. de Champeaux’s letters and gave him no order. He could not act on his own initiative because the ministry had ordered him to do nothing without having first referred matters to the Commissaire général of Tonkin, a very long process which usually required about a month. In this way, our Resident was completely paralysed.

In the circumstances, the two mandarins, our enemies, understood that they had the upper hand. They initially planned a coup towards the middle of December, but the king felt so threatened that he moved to be rid of the conspirators, announcing his first public audience to our Resident and forcing them to bring their plans forward. The news of this unusual event, a complete departure from established practice, caused great annoyance in the mandarinate.

Emperor Hiệp Hòa (30 July-29 November 1883)

Yet the two chiefs of the conspiracy realised that this was the opportunity they had been waiting for. They had the audience postponed until the following day, when they knew that M. de Champeaux would be leaving for Thuan-An to ask the commanding officer of our troops to send reinforcements to Hue.

The Poisoning of Hiep-Hoa

The conspirators made Hiep-Hoa swallow poison. The coup d’etat took place very quickly and without any great deployment of forces; only a few soldiers were sent to stand guard around the Missions, in order to prevent them from informing the Residence. As a result, M. de Champeaux did not hear what had happened at Thuan-An until about noon. He then hastened to return to Hue together with fifty soldiers, whom he had obtained with some difficulty. By the time he arrived, at ten o’clock in the evening, everything had calmed down.

The next day the mandarin-interpreter, Father Tho (a former banned Annamite priest) carried to the resident an apocryphal letter of abdication by Hiep-Hoa, saying that the sovereign had committed suicide.

This did not fool M. de Champeaux; without order, he refused to recognise the new king and broke off official relations with the court.

Nguyen-Van-Tuong and Ton-That-Thuyet, who had proclaimed themselves Regents, were thrown into disarray and thought themselves lost when 50 Annamite riflemen from Cochinchina and the gunboat Javeline arrived in Hue. They expected an imminent attack from us and hastily massed five or six thousand men around the residence, pointing all available cannon on their ramparts toward us.

A barracks building in the French Legation

The Legation had a garrison of 150 soldiers. While it had little to fear from the Annamese bands, armed for the most part with pointed bamboos, it was quite exposed, being situated only 700 meters from the Citadel. It could still be bombarded by the cannon on the ramparts. The situation continued to be critical for several days.

Meanwhile, Nguyen-Van-Tuong and Ton-That-Thuyet repeatedly disavowed the bands which they themselves had excited. They protested their friendly intentions and promised to recognise the Harmand Treaty. In reality, Hiep-Hoa was not a great loss for us; we would not have got far with a king lacking partisans, indeed we ourselves would have had to support him by force of arms. So it was that Memen remained as king under the name of Kien-Phuc, with Nguyen-Van-Tuong and Ton-That-Thuyet as Regents. An edict of pacification was issued, and the bands were dismissed, although this did not prevent them from running amok in the countryside under the orders of hostile mandarins, and massacring a hundred Christians.

The Taking of Son-Tay

The two Regents just let this happen, but after the capture of Son-Tay they realised that it would be prudent to capture and execute the perpetrators of the massacres. These executions enabled them to make a fine show when M. Tricou arrived to revise the Harmand Treaty. They lavished him with assurances of dedication, and thanks to this diplomatic pantomime they were able to secure rather good conditions, and in particular to avoid an essential clause, the occupation of the Citadel of Hue.

M. Tricou and M. Patenôtre

The signing of the Giáp Thân or Patenôtre Treaty on 6 June 1884

M. Tricou having left, the two Regents recommenced their intrigues, but this time the game was known. M. Patenôtre arrived and imposed, as a precondition, that we should have a serious garrison installed at Hue. They had no choice but to submit. But it is evident that this last treaty of Hue was a mortal blow to the influence of Nguyen-Van-Tuong and Ton-That-Thuyet.

This very accurate account of events, we repeat, permits us to ascertain as a probability that, following the Patenôtre Treaty, the two Regents – at the instigation of China and against a background of the conflict which had broken out over the terms of the Lang-Son Convention – launched against the young Kien-Phuc the very same kind of coup d’etat which they had already perpetrated in 1883 against Hiep-Hoa, following the Harmand Treaty.


Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014) and the forthcoming guidebook Exploring Huế.

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now and Huế Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

“King Dong-Khanh,” from Saïgon Républicain, 5 February 1889

Đồng Khánh, 1885-1888

Since the start of the Tet holidays, news of the death of the King of Annam, Dong-Khanh, has circulated in our city. This sad news was confirmed by the telegram which we publish above.

The king was just 26 years old. He was the son of a Prince named Kien-Thai-Vuong, (brother of King Tu Duc), elder brother of Kien-Phuc whom he succeeded, and half-brother of Ham-Nghi, currently detained in Algeria.

Hàm Nghi, 1884-1885

Let’s recall under what conditions he ascended the throne.

After the attack against General de Courcy in Hue (5 July 1885), the Regent Ton-That-Thuyet fled with the young King Ham-Nghi and raised the mandarins and scholars against us.

A month later, Dong-Khanh, elder brother of the fugitive, to whom the crown should have gone first, was proclaimed king.

Unfortunately, after the events of 5 July 1885, his position was very precarious.

At the time he ascended to the throne, Dong-Khanh was indeed a very slender figure, without authority over his subjects or over foreigners. He could rely neither on the people who had been terrorised by the mandarins, nor on the ruling class of the literati, who had made common cause with Regent Thuyet.

M. Joseph Chailley-Bert, in his book Paul Bert au Tonkin, retraced for us the spectacle of the court at that time:

“His court resembled a desert. The city, the citadel and the suburbs had once held more than 100,000 people, yet now there hardly remained 30,000. All around the palace rose great buildings constructed to accommodate countless servants or relatives, but now they were empty. In the street of the Ministries, where there once thronged a crowd of mandarins, there was little movement other than a few isolated palanquins. Meanwhile, the few advisers or servants who were retained by the new king had neither notoriety nor serious influence.”

Finally, Paul Bert arrived. King Dong-Khanh gave him a welcome reception and there explained the disrespect which was being shown to his person, and the little authority he had in the eyes of his subjects.

Paul Bert understood that the time had come to raise the prestige of royal authority, and at the same time to assert the influence of France. He transferred to the monarch half the treasure of Annam; the other half was sent to Paris to be converted into piastres bearing Dong-Khanh’s image.

The compound of the Viện Cơ Mật or Privy Council

The meetings of Co-Mat were no longer to be attended by foreign witnesses. Now, only the Résident supérieur M. Bihourd retained the right to attend. Finally, the doors of the palace were no longer to be guarded by French soldiers.

M. Constans and M. Richaud also continued to ensure that in Algeria, the detained former king was still the liberty and honours compatible with our security requirements.

A dispatch from the Governor General registered the fidelity with which His Majesty Dong-Khanh had fulfilled its obligations to us, and the sympathy of pledges which our country had constantly received from him. This was not banal praise, but recognition of a truth understood long ago.

On 24 April 1887, in an interesting note published on King Dong-Khanh, M. Petrus Ky said the following:

The tomb of Kiên Thái Vương Nguyễn Phúc Hồng Cai (1845-1876), 26th son of Emperor Thiệu Trị and father of three emperors – Đồng Khánh, Kiến Phúc and Hàm Nghi (BAVH)

“The present king was loved and respected by his brother Kien-Phuc, in a manner which was unusual in Asian royal families. When he was out walking, the late king affectionately carried with him a portrait of his elder brother. During his youth, Dong-Khanh lived in a special residence called the Chang-Mong-Duong, where he devoted himself passionately to study. Enthralled day and night by the love of reading, he hardly ever drew himself away from his office. He was therefore well versed in the philosophy, history and literature of the Far East, much more so even than an average member of the literati.

The only distraction he permitted himself was the exercise of horse riding. Tu-Duc, seeing how he studied so hard, permitted him to go three times a month to the palace of the Noi-Cac (royal office) to expound on the classics, and there to write literary compositions and assist in the development of the edicts and administrative acts of the kingdom.

He was distinguished at these sessions by the quickness of his mind in estimating the value of both men and things.

The French Concession in the Citadel

This young prince did not have, it seems, the ambition to ascend the throne. Also, when disagreements arose between the mandarins of the court, or abuse of authority needed to be suppressed, he took sides fairly, with no regard for self-interest.

Living among the people, he was also able, by personal observation, to come to appreciate the miserable state of the population.

As for his personal conduct, he observed between his brothers and his parents the perfect harmony prescribed by Confucius. This young prince was very intelligent and affable; he readily adopted foreign customs, in a manner which surpassed that of many of his countrymen.

I speak as a personal witness, from what I have seen and heard.

From the particular point of view of French interest, it is very fortunate that Dong-Khanh occupied the throne.”

Đồng Khánh, 1885-1888

We have before us a photograph of the King of Annam published in the weekly French newspaper L’Illustration. His face expresses sweetness rather than firmness.

He sits on a richly carved throne, hands resting on his knees. He wears the Annamite costume: a robe embroidered with silk and gold, wide silk trousers, and bare feet in slippers supported on a pedestal. His head is covered with a traditional turban.

France will stage for this young prince a funeral worthy of him and of the people who observe to such a great extent the worship of the dead.

And now we can all exclaim: “Dong-Khanh is dead! Long live Thành-Thái!”

Đồng Khánh, 1885-1888

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014).

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now and Huế Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.

“La Compagnie française des Tramways de l’Indochine,” from Le Courrier colonial illustré, December 1928

The French Indochina Tramway Company (Compagnie Française de Tramways de l’Indochine) was founded on 14 February 1890. At the outset, and for several years, it had to bear many difficulties.

A CFTI steam-hauled tram on boulevard Charner (now Nguyễn Huệ boulevard)

From 1892 to 1913, the company successively constructed the Saigon-Govap, Dakao-Tandinh, Govap-Hocmon, Giadinh-Can-Bong and Govap-Laithieu lines, and electrified the line from Govap to Binthay.

The electrification works were completed in 1923, and the company commissioned new rolling stock with railcars of the highest quality, bringing a remarkable improvement to the transportation of passengers on that part of the network which passed through Saigon.

A CFTI electric tram in Chợ Lớn

At the same time, the company participated fully in the creation of the Indochinese Electric Power Company (Société l’Energie Electrique Indochinoise), which supplied it with the power needed to operate its trains, while at the same time rendering other important services to the colony.

In 1925, the Company completed another extension to Thudaumot, in order to service the large plantation area there.

If we recall that the initial concession was provided only for horse-drawn trams, we can understand how the company has always taken the initiative to encourage the development of its network and to facilitate transportation by consistently improving its services.

A CFTI electric tram in Chợ Lớn

Currently, the network extends over 52 kilometres running on electricity. Independently of its official concessions, the company has also launched a bus service between Saigon and Cholon, in order to provide for the increase in the number of travellers.

The company has in Govap a tramway depot and a very well-equipped workshop for the maintenance of tramway lines, locomotives and driving trailers, with neighbouring land allocated for future enlargement.

The directors of the firm in Saigon have been, successively – Messrs. André LECADRE, Jacques LECADRE, BARRY and BOYER, and in Paris – M. TRIOULEYRE, Director General. The Board of Directors now comprises: President – Mr. Maurice ALLAIN; Vice-President – Mr G. HERMENIER; Managing Director – Mr. Paul DERVIEU; Directors – Messrs. Roger BARON, Jean DOLLFUS, Fernand DUBOSC, André MAGGlAR, Albert GARNIER and René THION DE LA CHAUME.

Gò Vấp CFTI Tramway Depot

Tim Doling is the author of the walking tour guidebook Exploring Hồ Chí Minh City (Nhà Xuất Bản Thế Giới, Hà Nội, 2014).

A full index of all Tim’s blog articles since November 2013 is now available here.

Join the Facebook group pages Saigon-Chợ Lớn Then & Now and Huế Then & Now to see historic photographs juxtaposed with new ones taken in the same locations, and Đài Quan sát Di sản Sài Gòn – Saigon Heritage Observatory for up-to-date information on conservation issues in Saigon and Chợ Lớn.